Israeli-Serbian wing Deni Avdija has all the tools to turn into a talented two-way player. The Knicks may regret passing on him, however.
For every Luka Doncic there have been two Jan Veselys, and that narrative seems to attach itself to nearly each European prospect at the top of the NBA draft. There are questions about the athleticism or speed of the game, for example, translating from Euro basketball to the faster and more athletic NBA. Plenty of European prospects were picked too early and became busts, just as there have been busts from the NCAA.
When the draft does finally happen (which may or may not be October 15th), you will hear all these narratives when Deni Avdija’s (pronounced Ahv-DEE-yah) name is called. You will see him compared to past European prospects, ranging from the incorrect Doncic to the more correct Danilo Gallinari or even Dario Saric.
There are similarities between Avdija and some of these other players, but he is a completely unique prospect. His résumé is impressive, and while there are flaws in his game, he is an incredibly complete prospect. He may have the highest floor of any prospect in this year’s potentially rocky draft class.
Deni Avdija was the youngest player to ever play for Maccabi Tel Aviv; he became an Israeli hero and attracted national attention when he led his country to the U20 European championships in 2019 and won MVP. What he showed the world during that tournament was that he was able to be “the guy” and lead a team to success. There was a distinct difference in the numbers as well as the role and opportunity in the offense between Maccabi games in the Israeli Basketball League as compared to games in the EuroLeague, which is clearly the second-best league in the world.
While he faces the same struggles as other European prospects—a lack of opportunity in regards to minutes and touches—it’s especially tough on a club like Maccabi that focuses exclusively on winning as opposed to development. However, that hasn’t stopped Avdija from being one of the biggest stars in the country. Between his national success and his homegrown status, he is already “carrying the nation on his shoulders,” and is set to be the earliest Israeli player drafted in NBA history.
Deni’s draft stock can range from all the way at no. 1 to down in the 10-ish range depending on if you prioritize the idea of a higher “ceiling” or a higher “floor.” There are some questions on his star potential, but most agree that his floor is a solid role player at the next level.
Let’s take a closer look at why Avdija is not just the safe pick, but potentially the smartest pick when considering the New York’s needs going forward.
While I reject the idea that there are many similarities between Deni Avdija and 2019 Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic, his passing will be brought up on draft night. Specifically, Avdija’s ability and willingness to push the tempo in transition and start fast breaks with some beautiful outlet passes.
There are plenty examples of beautiful outlet passes and full-court skips that can make your heart skip a beat—Avdija is more than that, though. With the ability to grab rebounds and immediately push tempo down the court, he is an extremely efficient transition player who creates a lot of instant offense for his teams. Quick decision-making and accurate passing allow him to create opportunities for his teammates at a high level in transition.
Deni Avdija, folks. pic.twitter.com/8MjuxBRR82
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 9, 2019
This pass from Deni Avdija is incredible pic.twitter.com/QjS7TfOCR5
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) September 17, 2019
While the outlet passes are aesthetically pleasing, there is more to Avdija’s game in regard to his playmaking ability. At 6’9″, 220 pounds, Avdija translates to a potentially elite passer for his size and a legitimate secondary-playmaking option.
The biggest takeaway from the way Avdija passes the ball is his decision making ability. He is a smart passer and usually makes the right decision. His turnover numbers have decreased over the past few years, which translates positively to the next level.
Avdija is a playmaker at all levels of the offense. With a strong passing ability, he poses a threat to score or dish every time he puts the ball on the floor. Part of Avdija’s danger offensively is his ability to supplement the lack of explosion with smart, heads-up playmaking, including passing off the dribble and driving to the basket. Avdija has a knack for whipping passes to open shooters on the perimeter, making smart drop-off passes, and finding cutters for good looks in the lane.
There is a surgical aspect to his offense, with his use of smart ball fakes and ability to deceive defenders with his eyes before making the correct play:
Love the burst Deni Avdija shows here off the bounce.
Subtle in-and-out dribble with his eyes going off to the left to give thought he was passing it off, then gets low and attacks for the drive and dropoff pic.twitter.com/sv2dHE8J5c
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) January 26, 2020
Due to his size, the best role for Avdija would be as a playmaker from the post and on the short roll where his passing ability opens up the game. Avdija creates passing lanes for himself by using ball fakes and angles to his advantage. He throws crisp, clean passes out of the post or off a roll, with the aptitude to kick out a shooter on the wing or find a cutter an easy bucket. The exquisite timing of his playmaking puts him steps ahead on offense and allows him to place the ball exactly where it needs to be.
While Avdija projects as a strong secondary playmaker as a roll man, he can reliably function on either side of the pick-and-roll. Not prone to mistakes, Avdija can be trusted to make smart passes out of PnR and take advantage of mismatches on either side. With good instincts, he has the capacity to keep defenders off balance and throw passes to all three levels.
Avdija brings a fluidity to the halfcourt offense with smart team basketball and constant movement. He can pass out of pressure or double teams, and makes good reads in the offense to find the best shot. His good instincts and quick thinking nearly guarantee that the passing translate to the next level.
Avdija is a strong and fearless finisher with a nice touch with either hand. Never one to avoid contact, his strength and body control allow him to go at bigger rim protectors.
It’s nice to see that fearlessness from such a young prospect when attacking the basket, especially when playing against older competition in Europe. His mentality makes him dangerous when attacking the hoop, since you know he will never back down.
Amar Sylla looks natural moving with Deni, but probably lucky he didn't foul bringing his arm down. Deni, meanwhile, composed and balanced as a finisher, is adept at finishing through contact and contests pic.twitter.com/biYYtpBE9G
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) September 18, 2019
Avdija does not get the credit for his craftiness around the basket. He creates space while protecting his shot close to the rim, preventing opportunities to get blocked. Angles are key to Avdija’s successful trips to the tin, and solid body control helps the Israeli forward finish.
He is not a big dunker in the lane, but has shown the ability to throw down a big dunk every once in awhile.
Remember the name Deni Avdija ?️
— Turkish Airlines EuroLeague (?) (@EuroLeague) February 8, 2020
One of the biggest strengths in Avdija’s game is his ability to move and read defenses when playing away from the ball. He moves well without the ball and is a smart cutter, finding gaps in the defense and exploiting them. According to The Stepien, 27 of his 31 made baskets around the rim in the halfcourt have been assisted (excluding putbacks/post-ups).
It’s easy to see how smart Advija is given his ability to take advantage of missteps by the defense. His basketball I.Q. helps him read defenses and capitalize on any opportunity. Most of his finishes come from improvising cuts in live plays, often setting up his defender, picking spots, and weaving in and out of traffic for easy baskets.
Deni Avdija is such a smart / damn good cutter: pic.twitter.com/19xrW1QuJM
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) January 26, 2020
Avdija is a smart player who understands defenses, at times appearing to be multiple steps ahead of the defense, taking advantage of their rotations, or lack thereof. With a knack for being able to get to the right place at the right time due to good instincts and I.Q., Avdija is a dangerous player off ball.
The Israeli forward is a solid post player as well. While he doesn’t have a huge array of post moves, his simple and smooth post game and finishing ability add another layer to his offensive arsenal. Liable to take advantage of smaller defenders or switches, Avdija is a threat to finish down low.
Dependable with the ball in his hand, Avdija has a decent ball handling repertoire which allows him to take the ball to the hole. While lacking an elite burst, a good first step allows him to go past defenders and attack the basket, where he is quick to go to hesitation and pump fakes in order to create a shot opportunity.
While defense is often a negative for European wings who struggle to stay in front of people athletically, Avdija is an above-average defender and projects to help his team at the next level.
With some concern about one-on-one defense, Avdija more than makes up for it with excellent team defense. Strong rotations and great instincts allow for Avdija to almost always be in the right position. He is a strong help defender and does a good job recovering if a mistake is made by a teammate.
He has a great nose for the ball. This can occasionally get him into trouble, jumping too early on plays and ending up out of position, but more often than not it leads to a steal or making a play on the ball.
While Avdija may not be an elite shot blocker or rim protector due to his lack of length and jumping ability, he is a solid rim protector at the European level mostly due to his timing and reads on defense.
Didn't get to see too much from Deni Avdija today, but this off-ball recognition that led to a block was amazing pic.twitter.com/ELXvdxr6D8
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) November 19, 2019
He is a smart shot-blocker who doesn’t foul in the paint often, going straight up for blocks with elite verticality. Avdija’s success as a rim protector will depend on the gains made in an NBA training facility, as his leaping ability and strength will need to improve to be a real threat in this capacity.
However, Avdija brings a good strength for his size, which impacts how he plays defense. With good balance and core strength he is able to challenge guys in the lane.
Avdija’s critics question his ability to stay in front of someone on defense, attributable to his lack of lateral quickness. There are things he needs to work on in that capacity, such as his footwork and defensive stance. He has, however, shown to be switchable and able to guard multiple positions.
Deni Avdija's defense was key in Maccabi's win over Anadolu Efes. Guarded everyone + big stops on PG Shane Larkin, C Tibor Pleiss
Avdija's touches are limited in Euroleague but doesn't affect his defensive effort/focus. Quick feet, stays attached thru screens, alert off the ball pic.twitter.com/BwRYqQB8tH
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) March 5, 2020
He fights through screens well and, while he needs to improve his point of attack defense, shows good effort getting back into plays. Avdija does have a propensity to make plays on defense, even if it is drawing an offensive foul while fighting through a screen.
Avdija may not ever be an elite one on one defender, but he is hyper aware on defense and will be a smart team defender.
Shooting is the biggest cause for concern with Avdija, and could potentially change him from being a good player to a great player. He has been a streaky and inconsistent shooter his whole career, and the potential indicators such as his free throw shooting are worrisome.
According to The Stepien, in his FIBA career, he’s a 36.1% three-point shooter on 155 attempts. His numbers are even worse than that on a small sample size shooting 34.4% from behind the arc on just 61 attempts this year with Maccabi.
The free throw numbers are not great: shooting somewhere between 52-57% from the line at nearly every level of his career. It is hard to look at those numbers and imagine he will become a consistent shooter off the dribble.
Important to go back and watch young Deni Avdija when evaluating his shooting. I remember him pulling from DEEP @ the 2017 U16s, where he made 2.4 threes per game. Was streaky but never thought of shooting as a major question back then and still don't now. https://t.co/4rwZVDkSLn pic.twitter.com/9rCs2N76DK
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 28, 2020
However, Avdija has a good form, and is by all accounts an extremely hard worker dedicated to improving his jump shot. He has good selection and doesn’t force a lot of shots, but instead lets the game come to him.
There are some issues with his footwork and lower body that appear to impact his shooting; however, it is not impossible that those are things he will be able to improve on as he gets older. The silver lining is that Avdija has a nice form and looks like that will progress over time.
It’s fair to project that Avdija can become a reliable catch-and-shoot threat from deep. His numbers have improved every year from both the stripe and beyond the arc
If you eliminate his shots at the end of the shot clock this year, he is around 36% from deep on a fairly low sample size, and that feels like it could be a realistic expectation for where he will be in the league. We know he will keep working hard on his jumper and hopefully become more consistent.
820 makes ??♂️ My morning pic.twitter.com/NLxXAwkaeL
— Deni Avdija (@deniavdia8) May 25, 2020
The Knicks’ most important pieces going forward will be Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett. So, let’s start there: how would Avdija fit the with the Knicks’ cornerstone future pieces?
Avdija’s ability to push transition with pretty outlet passes would benefit both of the Knicks’ future stars. He gets his teammates easy baskets, and nobody would benefit from that more than Robinson, who would surely be on the receiving end of a lot of passes resulting in dunks.
Defensively, Avdija would be a nice complement with Robinson as a secondary rim protector. His team defense would allow some breathing room for Robinson to stay at home.
With Barrett, Avdija could be a perfect fit, if he can find his jumper and stretch the floor offensively. His ability to see the court and his high-level cutting ability would make him a wonderful teammate for the Canadian. Avdija can play off-ball, in stark contrast to some of the more stagnant teammates with whom Barrett has played.
Likewise, he provides a motion to the offense with smart decision-making and constant ball movement. His passing as a roll man and out of the post would open up the offense and give Barrett a secondary playmaker that would allow him to be more creative offensively with less iso basketball.
At this point in his career, Avdija clearly makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball with a high I.Q. and quick decision-making. He is the versatile two-way player you need on a rebuilding team with an uncertain future.
If nothing else, Deni Avdija is one of the more versatile prospects in this year’s class. If he is able to correct the shot and become a legitimate shooting threat, there is no telling what he will be able to accomplish in the NBA. If he is not, he will still be a playmaker who can score inside and find his teammates for easy looks offensively, as well as provide sound team defense with good help side defense and rim protection.
If Avdija is available when the Knicks are on the clock, taking one of the smartest and most complete players in this year’s class would be a good sign for the future.